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Women in Law: Paying it Forward in the Workplace



I recently had the privilege of attending the second annual Women, Influence & Power in Law conference in Washington, D.C., the only national forum where women in law from all specialties come together to share their thoughts on current issues. 

More than 400 women attended, and I was extremely impressed by the caliber of the talent I saw in both the panelists and participants. 

Among the panelists were:

  • Lori Sher, Deputy General Counsel of E*Trade Financial Corporation
  • Lea Ann King, General Counsel of Toyota Material Handling USA
  • Heidi Mason and Bevelyn Coleman, EVPs and Deputy General Counsel of Wells Fargo and Co
  • Rhonda Ferguson, Vice President, Corporate Secretary and Chief Ethics Officer of FirstEnergy Corp. 

In listening to the discussions and talking with others, it also struck me how far we have come as women in the legal profession in just two generations. 

Several of the women who have been leading corporate legal departments at their companies for decades recalled a time when they couldn’t even put up pictures of their children or talk about their families because it could be perceived as a liability. 

While juggling high-powered legal positions and family responsibilities remains a balancing act for both men and women today, leadership seems to be much more understanding of this dynamic. They no longer view families as a threat or a distraction for the smart, capable women who are influencing the very direction of their companies. 

Much of this shift in perception can be credited to the women who paved the way for others when virtually no path existed. Rather than pulling up the ladder once they had reached the top, these women reached out a hand to help the next generation succeed. 

So how can we ensure we continue this unwritten tradition of mentoring women in the legal profession? 

Established Women in Law: Extend a Hand

Don’t think of becoming a mentor as yet another item to check off your list. If it’s not genuine, it’s not worth your time or hers. 

Instead, think about the people who have helped you along the way. Most likely, they offered a little guidance over a period of several years or more. 

Now think about the women you encounter in your day-to-day responsibilities. Who are the go-getters? Who’s always eager to learn more? Whose career goals seem to be closely aligned with yours? Do you see yourself in any of these women? 

Think about who you have the potential to impact most and get to know her on a personal level. Invite her out to coffee or lunch for an honest conversation about how things are going. 

Commit to a manageable, yet consistent pattern of communication. Whether it’s in person, by phone or via Skype, the means does not matter, but the consistency does.

If you’re in a position to offer performance reviews, focus on specific metrics you can track over time. 

As the relationship evolves, ask about future goals and really listen to her answers. Be open to sharing opportunities for advancement as they arise, even if the opportunity is outside your company. 

As a recruiter, I’m often surprised by how many leaders actually pass along an opportunity to their staff. The workplace is much more fluid than it once was, and it’s not realistic to expect to retain your employees for their entire careers. When you help them, it comes back around to you. 

Women Aspiring to Succeed in Law: Take Initiative

If you’re new to the law department or recently started a role in corporate compliance, don’t wait for someone to introduce herself as your mentor. Ask questions and look for opportunities to develop new skills. 

You could do this by joining a committee that falls outside your job description or offering to help with a new project that isn’t necessarily your area of expertise. 

Take the time to read industry publications, join relevant LinkedIn groups and follow some women worth watching in the legal profession on social media. 

If you’re fortunate enough to work for a company that has its own mentoring programs in place or sponsors regular networking events, take the time to attend. 

Find a woman you admire at your own company and take a genuine interest in what she does. Don’t try to impress her with flattery; get her attention by working hard and proving yourself. Get to know her on a personal level first, but don’t be shy about asking for career advice. 

As women, we’ve made great strides in the legal profession over just a few decades. But no matter how savvy or talented we are, chances are, we had someone who helped us along the way. Now it’s our responsibility to pay it forward so we can continue to have better representation of women in law. 

Is your company looking for ways to reward top-performing women who aspire to take on leadership positions? Discover tips for assessing existing talent and General Counsel succession planning with this guide, “7 Steps You Should Be Taking Now to Find Your Next GC.”

7 Steps You Should Be Taking Now to Find Your Next GC

Topics: Legal Talent   |   Recruiting   |   Succession Planning


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